Friday 25 November 2022

The Tories' Housing Crisis

If you wait by the river long enough, so goes the old Chinese proverb, the bodies of your enemies will float past. These last few weeks, I've found myself in this enviable position. Having banged on about the long-term decline of the Tories for a decade, mainstream politics has finally flowed in my direction. One can't move for Tory scribblers, politicians, and wonks despairing over the fate of their party. Ryan Shorthouse, the founder of the "modernising" think tank Brght Blue announced he was stepping down from leading the outfit. His party's betrayal of younger people has proven too much. Three young(ish) MPs - Dehenna Davison, Chloe Smith, and William Wragg have announced they're standing down at the next election. And even the Telegraph, the nearest organ to what passes for the Tories' collective brain, have a bad case of the jitters. As much as I'd like to think it's because the book is getting traction, in reality what I identified as a political fact of life has now become so obvious it cannot be ignored.

A core argument of my Tory decline thesis is their party is a barrier to aspiration. One does not become more conservative with age because aching bones and life experience spontaneously generates conservative attitudes. Instead it rests on the acquisition and ownership of property, and this is something the Tories used to understand. Margaret Thatcher, for example, sold off council housing on the cheap because she bet on it creating a millions-strong layer of mortgage holders. The disciplining consequence of debt, i.e. the need to keep up payments and making a generation of homeowners the beneficiaries of asset price inflation can and does have individuating, atomising, and conservatising effects. A look at historic data showing the relationship between owner occupation and the likelihood of supporting the Tories is known to any student of voting behaviour. But if property acquisition is disrupted, what then? Nothing good for the Tories. It means younger people are acquiring property later in life, if at all, and therefore it does not get the chance to exercise its rightist pull over time - as it has with large numbers of existing retirees.

The seemingly endless rise of house prices has had two consequences. One is a relatively numerous caste of petty landlords, who in turn are more or less solidly Tory in their politics. And then there is generation rent. Correctly, renters view the Tories as the party of those laying an unearned claim to their income just so they can put a roof over their heads. They are more numerous than the landlords and have the propensity to vote anyone but Tory. But since coming to power in 2010, the Tories temporarily off-setted their numbers deficit by relying on the older people who benefited from Thatcher's council house giveaway and the cheap mortgages of the 1980s. Older people turn out to vote, and younger people disproportionately do not. But this cannot last forever if an electoral coalition dependent on the old isn't reproducing itself. And it's not. The breakdown of property acquisition spells Tory doom.

Why don't the Tories do something about it? Social trends are not iron laws, after all. Belatedly, some in government have started waking up. Boris Johnson's so-called levelling up agenda partly addressed itself to the housing shortage. But this plan was fatally compromised because it was challenged from within the Treasury and Cabinet itself. We can't well have people expecting the state to do something that might benefit them, an orientation Rishi Sunak has been very happy to carry on with. Having put together a coalition dominated by the elderly and the propertied, doing nothing suits them while doing something opens the door to severe political difficulties.

Consider the putative rebellion by Tory MPs over housing targets this week. The rebel leader, former environment secretary Theresa Villiers, wrote earlier this month that she objected to "inappropriate" housing in her Chipping Barnet constituency. Building on the green belt was bad, and won't someone think of the environmental destruction this entails? Just don't talk about her voting record on climate change mitigation and low carbon energy generation. While there might be good reasons for some criticisms of top-down housing targets, appearances matter in politics and for millions this underlines their contempt they have for the Tories.

This might seem like NIMBYism on Villiers's part, but the reasons she and her 40-strong band of fellow rebels fielded were puff. They demonstrate the unbridgeable gulf between what the Tories need to do and what they can do. Political necessity requires they pander to the voter coalition they've built up since the New Labour years, and that chiefly means limiting the housing supply. Whether it helps maintain property values now prices are subject to downward pressures, or a "buoyant" rental market of too many renters chasing too few (expensive) lets, the consequences are the same. No excessive supply of new houses means their existing coalition benefits, and the crisis of Tory political reproduction plays out.

Because the Tories are stuck, they can write off the next two elections - unless Labour are the victims of catastrophes as stupid and as self-inflicted as Johnson's and Liz Truss's. But even then, the odds are not in the Conservative Party's favour. Memories last a long time and it's difficult to divine how the Tories could shake off their toxic housing legacy - as well as the myriad other ways they've made life worse for young and working age people. We're in existential crisis territory. Tory commentators are right to be concerned. The current occupant of Number 10 could be their last Prime Minister for quite some time.

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Robert Dyson said...

Yes, the Tories have been political asset stripping for a long time. Once the assets are stripped, that's it. All those state properties and industries sold off - sovereignty gone for real, not that fantasy sovereignty that is subsumed in Trade deals. They have become a criminal gang.

Ken said...

As someone who has written about the misuse of “refute”, and as someone who has given the nod to French intellectuals from time to time, I find it surprising that you carelessly throw in “existential” to describe the problem which the Tories face.
In my head, I can see JPS exclaiming “Eh bien….” and proceeding at length to explain why this might not be a legitimate use of this concept.

Blissex said...

«But this cannot last forever if an electoral coalition dependent on the old isn't reproducing itself. And it's not. The breakdown of property acquisition spells Tory doom.»

I suspect that our blogger is rather underestimating the effect of property inheritance in maintaining the numbers of a large vested interest group of parasitical rentiers; their numbers will shrink indeed because wage-only first-time buyers are becoming rarer, but they will not disappear, as the heirs of today's tory voters already (bank of mum and dad) get a "leg up" as to deposits from their family wealth.

Regardless the risks are for Conservative party as such, as long as the main opposition party also sees affluent tory parasites as their core constituency overall policies will not change, here is Peter Mandelson on the core electoral strategy of New Labour (and of New, New Labour):
“British elections are won in the center ground inhabited by a good 15 percent of the population who do not necessarily lean left or right. Those people want to be convinced of a party’s leadership, economic competence and sense of fair play. If a party aims its policies at only one section of the electorate, this will not be sufficient for victory. You have to be able to draw voters from the center to your side, especially in a campaign’s final days.”

Of course that mythical 15% of "centrist" (and of course "aspirational") dads and moms are actually propertied tories, and will only vote for a thatcherite party, whether "progressive" or "conservative" thatcherite. That is not going to change anytime soon.

Blisssex said...

«the Tories have been political asset stripping for a long time.»

Crucially they (and New Labour and the LibDem) have have been careful to asset strip people who can;t vote (immigrants), don't vote or anyhow don't vote for them, mostly Labour voters who work and wanmt to buy or rent a place to sleep in.

«Once the assets are stripped, that's it.»

Unfortunately from an economic view asset stripping can still go on for a while, dickensian conditions like this are still relatively rare, many more people can contribute to "the economy" bay paying 10 rents for a studio flat:
“I once worked with a Pole. He was the senior developer on my team. He said when he came to the UK he started as a builder and lived in a studio flat with 10 other eastern european immigrants, all working on the same site as him. Grim.”

Up until WW2 a lot more than today lived in crumbling tiny tenements paying huge per-sqft rents. This can come back again for the benefit of the rentiers.